A figure of speech is commonly known as an idiomatic expression that means something other than its literal interpretation. For instance, "I'll clean your clock"
does not mean, "I'll dust and polish your timepiece," but rather, "I will beat you severely." Figures of speech are not limited to such expressions; they also refer to a wide array of literary and rhetorical techniques used by writers and orators in order to embellish their works.
Figures of speech are divided into two general categories: rhetorical figures and tropes. Rhetorical figures use word choice not to alter the original meaning of the words, but rather to add a certain effect to them in addition to their meaning. For example, saying, "Why don't you trot down to the corner store and pick up a jug of milk?" doesn't change the meaning of "trot", but it may cause the listener to get an odd image of the addressee as a horse. A trope, on the other hand, changes the meaning of a word. For example, saying, "I plowed through that book," changes the meaning of "plow" from "to cut into, open, or make furrows or ridges in" to "read very quickly".
Some of the most common figures of speech are as follows:
Alliteration: the use of repeated consonant sounds in a sequence of words, usually at the beginnings of stressed syllables. If "s" is the repeated sound, then this is referred to as sibilance. Alliteration is common to certain types of Old English and Germanic verse. Example: "With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse;/Such glaum ande gle glorious to here". Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon.
Anacoluthon: a change in grammatical construction of a sentence; a lack of parallelism that draws attention to the anomalous part. Example: "Agreements entered into when one state of facts exists; are they to be maintained regardless of changing conditions?" -– John Diefenbaker
Anadiplosis: ("doubling back") the repetition of one or several words; specifically, repetition of a word that ends one clause at the beginning of the next. Example: "Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business." Francis Bacon, Essays or Counsels
Anaphora: repetition of a word or phrase at the beginnings of successive clauses. Example: "But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled...one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity..." Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream"
Anastrophe: a disruption of the usual word order in a phrase, which draws attention to the phrase. Example: "Silence like a cancer grows." Paul Simon, "The Sound of Silence"
Antithesis: a use of contrasting words or images in a parallel structure. Example: "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Aposiopesis: a rhetorical strategy whereby the speaker halts abruptly in midspeech as if overcome by emotion or otherwise unwilling or unable to continue. Example: "O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,/And men have lost their reason. Bear with me,/My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,/And I must pause till it come back to me." William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Apostrophe: a speaker's addressing a person who is not physically present or even necessarily alive, an imaginary or inhuman entity, or an abstract idea. Example: "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!" Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
Assonance: the use of repeated vowel sounds in a sequence of words, usually in stressed syllables, that do not share the same consonnant sounds. Example: "What large, dark hands are those at the window..." D. H. Lawrence, "Love on the Farm"
Asyndeton: the omission of conjunctions between coordinate clauses. Example: "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." John Fitzgerald Kennedy, inaugural speech
Cacophony: a mixture of harsh or discordant sounds; the opposite of euphony. Example: "The nasal whine of power whips a new universe..." Hart Crane, The Bridge
Chiasmus: a strategy in which syntactic structures are reversed or repeated in a reverse order. Example: "Fair is foul and foul is fair..." William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Climax: the arrangement of words or clauses in order of increasing importance. Example: "Renounce my love, my life, myself--and you." Alexander Pope, "Eloisa to Abelard"
Epistrophe: repetition of a word or phrase at the ends of successive clauses. Example: With this card, if you lose your job or switch jobs, you're covered. If you leave your job to start a small business, you're covered. If you are an early retiree, you're covered..."William Jefferson Clinton, addressing Congress on 22 September 1993 re]: "Health Security for All Americans"
Hyperbole: deliberate exaggeration to achieve an effect, which can be serious, comic, or ironic. Example: "I would walk five hundred miles/And I would walk five hundred more..." The Proclaimers, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)"
Hysteron proteron: reversal of the usual chronological order of actions. Example: "...the Egyptian admiral,/With all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder..." William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
Litotes: a strategy whereby the speaker emphasizes the importance of a statement by denying its opposite. Example: "He obeyed, though with no little Reluctancy." Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
Meiosis: deliberate understatement. Example: "One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day." (bumper sticker)
Onomatopoeia: the use of words that signify meaning through sound effects, or that sound like what they mean. Example: "A thin whine of wires, a rattling and flapping of leaves..." Theodore Roethke, "The Storm"
Oxymoron: the juxtaposition of two opposite or contradictory words in order to present a paradox for rhetorical effect. Example: "I long and dread to close." Adrienne Rich, "Toward the Solstice"
Paradox: a statement that appears to be self-contradictory but that, upon further reflection, contains some truth to it. Example: "Thou canst not every day give me thy heart;/If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it..." John Donne, "Lovers' Infiniteness"
Paronomasia (pun): the use of words that are similarly spelled or homonymic but have different meanings, usually for comic purposes but also for serious ones. "Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight..." Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"
Paralepsis: the pretended omission of certain details to emphasize their importance or remind the audience of them. Example: "That part of our history detailing the military achievements which gave us our several possessions...is a theme too familiar to my listeners for me to dilate on, and I shall therefore pass it by." Thucydides, "Funeral Oration"
Prolepsis: in literature, the treatment of an anticipated event or action as it is has already occurred or is already occurring. In rhetoric, it is the anticipation and rebuttal of an opponent's arguments before they are raised. Example: "So the two brothers and their murder'd man/Rode past fair Florence..." John Keats, "Isabella"
Tautology: otherwise redundant repetition of an idea, word, or sentence for emphasis. Example: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural speech
Catachresis: a kind of metaphor in which a word is used to describe something outside of its normal boundaries. Example: "Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold/A sheep-hook..." John Milton, "Lycidas"
Irony: incongruity between appearance and reality; the contradiction of expressed words to intended meaning. Example: "...the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved that Oliver should be 'farmed,' or, in other words, dispatched to a branch workhouse some three miles
off." Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Metaphor: an implicit comparison of one thing to another without using "like" or "as". Example: "The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor..." Alfred Noyes, "The Highwayman"
Metonymy: use of a word that is commonly associated with a concept in order to evoke that concept, such as referring to the power of written rhetoric as "the pen" and war as "the sword" in the maxim "the pen is mightier than the sword". Example: "With a drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop..." George Eliot, Adam Bede
Personification: the granting of human features to anything nonhuman, from animals, to objects, to abstract ideas, and so on. Example: "And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,/I love to see the look with which it braves...the lightning, the fierce wind, and trampling wave." William Wordsworth, "Elegaic Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Pelle Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont"
Simile: explicit comparison of one thing to another using "like" or "as". Example: "O My Luve's like a red, red rose." Robert Burns, "A Red, Red Rose"
Synecdoche: a technique whereby a part of something is used to represent its whole, or a whole is meant to represent a part. Example: "She hath not seen the change of fourteen years;/Let two more summers wither in their pride..." William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Zeugma (synchisis): a grammatical structure in which two different clauses are linked to a governing word or phrase, usually with significantly different meanings attributed to those clauses. Example: "the Fates have wrapt in Night./Whether the Nymph shall...lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball..." Alexander Pope, "The Rape of the Lock"